Becoming speaker has long been Rep. John Boehner’s dream. But it wasn’t until mid-2009 when he and his team, sensing voter dissatisfaction with President Obama’s policies and festering unemployment, got serious with a new strategy. Boehner chose a path Republicans rarely stick to, but win when they do: focusing strictly on issues, not personalities. His “Winning the Issues” theme eventually morphed into the GOP question that won the 2010 election: “Where are the jobs?”
A new election analysis by GOP pollster and adviser David Winston, head of the Winston Group, says that Boehner’s question beat out Obama’s “keys to the car” analogy by a mile. The reason: Voters wanted Washington to concentrate exclusively on jobs, not healthcare, the environment, or other problems Obama addressed.
“For most voters, the issue of the economy in contrast with other issues is a little like a house with a fire on the roof,” Winston says in the analysis. “From voters’ perspective, President Obama spent too much time on other issues,” adds Winston. “Despite President Obama’s argument that the American people should not hand the keys back to the Republicans, voters did. But the keys weren’t to a car, they were for a fire truck and the message was clear: Put out the fire.”
Staying on message has won GOP majorities before, in 1980 and 1994, says Winston. In November’s elections, it also helped to build a broader center-right coalition. Boehner’s “Where are the jobs?” theme was viewed as the top election question by Democrats, liberals, blacks, Republicans, and independents. And on Election Day, the GOP saw gains in most voter groups, but most importantly independents, who had rejected Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections.
Winston says the Tea Partyers helped too and stuck with Boehner because of their singular focus on the economy. Their involvement, he adds, nudged the nation further right, providing the GOP a strategic advantage for its agenda. But Winston has one caveat: The nation remains politically split, giving neither party carte blanche.
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.